Over the past few months, I’ve heard John Newton (Alfresco founder and CTO) and Todd Barr (Alfresco CMO) speak on a new direction for Alfresco. They are ushering in an era of Social Content Management.
Social Content Management is a term coined by Gartner Group, and adopted by Alfresco. It’s a brand new concept, and the industry hasn’t yet settled on a standard definition. Alfresco uses it to mean managing the content created by social software. That’s a platform-oriented view, and it makes sense coming from a platform vendor like Alfresco.
But when I think about Social Content Management, I think about the user. Folks who know me well know I’m always thinking about the user. I’m constantly asking questions like “what are the users trying to accomplish when they use this application?” or “what’s the best user experience to help them achieve their goals?” At heart, I’m much more of an applications guy than a platform guy.
So I got to thinking about some of the social networking applications I use regularly, and wondering how we could apply those concepts and features to the realm of document management and collaboration. What I came up with is a list of features I’d like to see added to Alfresco that I think would make it more social and improve users’ ability to collaborate. To me, that’s what Social Content Management should be.
Following Users in Alfresco (Inspired by Facebook)
At the heart of any social network are our friends – the people we are connected to. We follow them to find out what’s going on in their personal lives.
But in a business setting, it’s a bit different. We don’t want to follow our colleagues’ personal lives; we want to follow their business lives.
You may want to know when a team member has completed the report he was working on. Or a manager might want to keep tabs on what her employees are doing. There are subject matter experts that you would follow to learn more about your company’s products. People in Sales might want to see what’s cooking over in Marketing, and vice-versa.
The first feature I want to see is the ability to follow my colleagues in Alfresco. The documents they produce, the discussions they participate in, the comments they make on other people’s documents – this is the information I want to see when I follow someone’s business life, and all of this information is stored in Alfresco.
To make it easier to maintain, I want to be able to follow groups as well as users so that I don’t have to constantly be managing my “friend” list as people join and leave the company or move into different departments.
Kicking it up a notch, I also I also want to be able to follow (or subscribe to) a document, folder, discussion thread, site, etc. I want Alfresco to notify me when someone edits a document I’m following or adds a document to a folder I’m following.
To make this concept work, I’ll need an activity feed that’s personalized for me based on the users and groups and documents and folders I’m following. And since Alfresco added status updates in 3.4, it should include status updates for the users I follow.
To keep my activity feed from getting out of hand, I should be able to fine-tune the types of activities that appear in my feed (see below), and to keep the database from growing out of control, administrators should be able to adjust how long feed items are kept before they are deleted.
Configurable Activity Feed Dashlet (Inspired by TweetDeck)
I’d like to see a configurable activity feed dashlet, so that I can filter out activity types I’m not interested in. This way, I could add the dashlet to my dashboard multiple times with different settings. Maybe I would have one dashlet showing me the activities that are related to documents I’ve created, another one that shows activities related to users I follow, and a third that is showing subjects I’m interested in (see below).
The inspiration for this idea comes from TweetDeck, the Twitter client I use on my Macintosh. Using TweetDeck, I’ve created multiple Twitter feeds that let me watch certain subjects or groups of users, and it’s a thousand times easier for me to make sense of the zillion tweets that zoom past me everyday. I’ve got some feeds that I watch closely and others that I’m more casual about.
In large sites, Alfresco’s current activity feed can contains way too much information, so being able to filter out the activities that aren’t interesting to me will help me cut through the noise created by a zillion activities.
Email Digests (Inspired by LinkedIn)
Activity feeds are great for users that spend a lot of time in Alfresco, since they see their feed every time they look at their dashboard. Users that have embraced Facebook in their personal lives are comfortable scanning a feed to stay on top of things.
But the activity feed isn’t going to work for everyone. Some users don’t spend much time in Alfresco, and others will be resistant to constantly checking a giant activity feed. Many of these users still live in an email-oriented world, so for them, I want email digests that recap their activity feeds or notify them when documents they are following have been modified. This is similar to what I get from LinkedIn, a social networking site that I don’t visit very often. LinkedIn sends me emails from time to time that keep me updated and let me easily re-engage.
If I had my way, the email settings would be configured as part of the Activity Feed dashlet. This way, I could elect to have some of my feeds email me a daily digest and other feeds email me in real-time when the activity happens.
According to my friends at Alfresco, a basic version of this feature is coming in the next release or two, but it will likely only be a daily digest of a single global feed.
Include Users and Subjects in Comments (Inspired by Twitter)
The current version of Alfresco lets users comment on documents, folders, blog entries, and links. This is nice, but there are a couple of improvements I’d like to see.
First, the way that the comment is displayed could be improved. Today, when a user comments on a document, a message is added to the activity feed saying, “[User] commented on [Document] in site [Site].”
I have to click the link to view the document details page so that I can see the comment. I don’t like this, because it takes a while to load the document details page, and that just wastes time. Also, it breaks my train of thought. The activity feed is great for quickly staying up to date on what’s happening in Alfresco. But when I click a link in the feed, I’m taken out of that context to an entirely different page, and when I return to the dashboard, I struggle to find where I was in the feed.
So, the next enhancement I want to see is for the text of the comment to be included in my activity feed.
I also want to be able to direct my comments to specific users, similar to how Twitter works. I want to be able to include @username in a comment and have the comment be highlighted in that user’s feed. This would make the discussion around documents much richer, since I could say something like “I think this report needs more detail. @johndoe, what do you think?” This tells John Doe that I’m specifically looking for a response from him.
This notation, used widely on Twitter, will be easy for users to pick up, and if we had configurable dashboards, I’d create a feed just of the comments that referenced my user name. I’d set this feed up to email me in real time as the comments were created, so that I could respond quickly.
Building on the idea of using Twitter syntax, I also want to use hashtag notation in Alfresco comments. For the uninitiated, hashtags (placing ‘#’ in front of a short word or phrase) is a simple way of tagging a tweet so that others interested in that subject will see it. For example, #alfresco is used on Twitter to indicate that the tweet is about Alfresco, and I have a search set up on Twitter that shows me all the tweets tagged with #alfresco, whether I follow that user or not.
Allowing hashtags in Alfresco comments would let users tie their comments to a particular project or subject, and other users could search for the hashtag or create a feed of comments related to that hashtag. It would provide another dimension to staying on top of what’s going on, and would be particularly useful in a large site with lots of users and lots of comments.
What social features do you want to see in Alfresco? Continue the conversation in the comments.